Apart from Slovakia, there was nowhere in Europe did the Catholic Church identify itself so closely with a Nazi regime as in Croatia. This is the common conclusion of almost all historians on the situation in the Balkan nation between 1941 and 1944. Perhaps this conclusion is unsurprising: Catholic priests, including an archbishop, were closely involved with the political and racial aims of the Croatian State during this period, and the Vatican appears on first sight to have fully endorsed the existence of that state.
The reader of this series will, by now, be well equipped to pose a question mark against such sweeping statements. As in almost every other country, the Catholic experience was rather less uniform than that presented above. Let us first consider the background to the story. The Croats form part of the Serbo-Croat language family. In most other instances, language is the first marker of ethnicity, but not here. That one family was divided into three separate peoples, the result of a convoluted religious history.
Croats and Serbs had parted company during the eleventh century, when, after the Great Schism of 1054, the southern Serbs had adhered to the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople whilst the northern Croats had stayed with Rome. In the heartland of the language, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the two peoples lived intermingled. There they were joined by a third religiously determined ethnic group, the Bosniaks. Originally, these were Bogomil heretics, closely aligned with the Cathars of southern France. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Bosnia in the fourteenth century, they converted to Islam.
Most of northern Croatia remained under the rule of Catholic Austria, whilst Bosnia and Serbia became part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, Muslim converts dominated Bosnia, whilst the Serbs clung to their Orthodox Faith as an expression of their identity. Croats aligned closely with the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, which they rescued from revolution on several occasions, notably in 1848. As romantic linguistic nationalism began to sweep Europe, some Serbs and Croats began to think of themselves as one people, the South Slavs, and a political movement for the creation of a South Slav state began.
This culminated in 1919 in the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, that kingdom was dominated by the Serb royal family and was seen by many Serbs as an extension of their country. Muslim Bosnians and Albanians, Gypsies, Macedonians, Hungarians and Croats all suffered significant discrimination. The Catholic Church was less restricted, but it was clear that Orthodoxy was the norm for the established power of the new country. To many, including many in the Vatican and the Yugoslav hierarchy, the new country was a prison for their Church.
This brief survey should be sufficient to illustrate the centrality of denominational identity in the wider identities of the Yugoslav kingdom. To be a Croat almost necessarily meant being a Catholic. It was, therefore, inevitable that Croat nationalism, like Slovak nationalism, was to be intimately intertwined with Catholicism.
All of this does not mean that the regime which was established upon the collapse of the Yugoslav state, the Independent Croat State under the rule of the Nazi Ustaše Movement, is in any way acceptable: it merely illustrates what caused the close identification of nation and Faith. That this had unpalatable consequences is very clear. All Catholics, from the leader of the Church, Bl. Aloysius Cardinal Stepinać, to the lowest Franciscan friar welcomed independence for Croatia and applauded the new regime and its leader, Ante Pavelić, for achieving freedom.
The Vatican, too, rejoiced in the creation of a Catholic state in the Balkans, which it saw as a liberation from Orthodox and Muslim oppression. This caused some clergy to identify totally with the regime. The new country encompassed much of what is now Croatia and Bosnia. The leader of the Church in Bosnia, Archbishop Ivan Šarić of Sarajevo, went particularly far in his support. An early pioneer of Catholic Action, he was always a keen supporter of muscular Catholic political involvement. Ironically, seeing the persecution of Catholic Action in Italy, he threw in his lot with the Ustaše. He wrote praise poems on its leader, and went on to compare Hitler to the leader of a Crusade! Again, the irony seems to have been lost on the Archbishop.
Rather too many of the lower clergy also became deeply implicated with the regime. One example will suffice to illustrate the depths to which many of these men fell. Fr. Miroslav Filipović was a Franciscan from the Banja Luka region of Bosnia. He became iconic of the depravity of nationalist hatred. In 1941, immediately after the creation of Croatia, he led a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Banja Luka region. This included attacks on schools, and he oversaw and was personally involved in the murder of Serb children. His superior had already banned him from being involved with the Ustaše, and now reported him to the Papal legate in Zagreb. Appalled, the latter suspended him and handed him over to the Italians who occupied part of the new country, who imprisoned him.
Ustaše officials had him freed, and he was then sent to the concentration and extermination camp of Jasenovac. There he was implicated in the murder of some 30,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, almost a tenth of the total number of victims of that hell-hole. He was hanged by the Communists after the war, dressed as a Franciscan. St. Francis probably wept in heaven that day. As a result of the evil committed by some of the clergy, others became the innocent victims of Serb reprisals. In September, the Holy Father will beatify five Daughters of Divine Charity, martyred by the Serbs. The sisters had nothing to do with the horrors of the regime, but rather offered charity to all, and were known for their love for Serbs and Gypsies. It was this that made them targets, for the Serbs were just as unwilling to see people transcend the ethnic divide as the Ustaše.
Other Catholics openly opposed the regime and its Italian and German backers. On the island of Krk, Bishop Josip Srebrnić became the focal point of anti-Italian resistance, and he openly defied the regime by delivering assistance to the inmates of yet another camp, that of Rab. For his efforts, he was arrested by the Communists in 1945, and incarcerated.
In the Vatican, Pope Pius XII walked a tightrope. As in the case of Slovakia, he did not openly denounce the regime, which, in hindsight, has to be counted as a mistake. This is not to say that the Vatican was indifferent. It did not recognize the independent Croatia, and meetings with its leadership were conducted on a personal level. The powerful Eugène Cardinal Tisserant had a list made up of clergy collaborating with the regime’s ethnic policies, so that they could be punished when the time was right. Pius also urged Bl. Cardinal Stepinać to keep his distance from Pavelić and other members of the regime. But the Ustaše also had its supporters in the Vatican, and these helped Pavelić to escape to Franco’s Spain in 1944.
Bl. Cardinal Stepinać has been vilified in some quarters for his role, but this can easily be refuted just by noticing his opposition to any racial politics. As he said in 1942,
“All men and all races are children of God … those who are Gypsies, Black, European, or Aryan all have the same rights.... It is not permissible to persecute Gypsies or Jews because they are thought to be an inferior race.”
To Pavelić he wrote in 1943, “The very Jasenovac camp is a stain on the honor of the ISC.” Deeply involved in the smuggling of Jews through Bulgaria with the assistance of the future Bl. Pope John XIII, he also protected Orthodox Serbs and condemned and threatened clergy involved in atrocities, often to little avail.
What to make of this rather mixed history? From a Catholic perspective, there is little to enjoy in it, apart from the witness of the five martyrs of Dina or Bl. Cardinal Stepinać. Comfort is found, too, in the condemnation of the Franciscan war criminal, Miroslav Filipović, both by the Vatican and by his immediate superiors. This is more than one can say for Slovakia, where the record of the Church is bleak, indeed. As in that country, however, Croatia in the Second World War offers yet another example of the dangers of equating Faith with national identity: the demands of the latter almost always prevail over the Gospels’ teachings of love and compassion.
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.